Jan. 6 left officer with Mercer County ties a presidential medal, lasting scars | News

WASHINGTON — On Jan. 6, 2021, police officer Michael Fanone fought for his life when he was attacked by rioters who invaded the U.S. Capitol building.

One day short of two years later, Fanone received recognition for his efforts when President Joe Biden awarded the former officer with the Presidential Citizens Medal for his actions during the U.S. Capitol attack. Fanone tells the story of that day and the aftermath in his new book, “Hold the Line.”

Fanone got a childhood lesson in patriotism from a trip to see the Avenue of 444 Flags exhibit in America’s Cemetery in his father’s family’s hometown, Hermitage.

“Those were patriots,” he said of those honored at the Mercer County landmark.

But nothing in Fanone’s life — including a long career as a police officer — prepared him for the events of Jan. 6, 2021.

“I’ve been a cop in D.C. for 20 years and I’ve seen things,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Fanone was serving as a Washington, D.C., metropolitan police officer. He was not supposed to be at the Capitol that day, but he and his partner decided to assist police officers defending the lower west terrace tunnel — the tunnel Joe Biden would walk through two weeks later to take the oath of office to become president. Fanone said the stage was already set up for the inauguration.

The tunnel is 250 to 350 feet long and as wide as five or six adults standing shoulder-to-shoulder, Fanone said.

When he arrived about 3 p.m., an estimated 50 police officers were trying to fight off thousands of protesters who were breaching the tunnel. The officers had been fighting for two hours. They would continue the battle until about 6 p.m., when the National Guard arrived.

“You could not slide a credit card between two people inside that tunnel,” Fanone said. “The fighting there was intense.”

Googling Fanone’s body camera footage that day yields videos of the attack, some with Fanone explaining the footage.

“It was brutal,” he said. “It was intense.”

Fanone and his partner were in full police uniform, the first time Fanone had donned a uniform in 10 years.

According to Fanone, rioters were using metal baseball bats, metal pipes, pieces of scaffolding from the political stage, officers’ equipment and commercial-grade fireworks.

“It was like mortars going off,” he said. “Imagine the percussion of that in a concrete tunnel. It was deafening.”

Fanone pushed his way to the front line to try to relieve some police officers who had been there for hours already. He was helping to push back rioters when a rioter named Albuquerque Head from Tennessee grabbed Fanone by the neck and pulled him out into the crowd. Head was sentenced on Oct. 27, 2022, to 7½ years in federal prison for his part in the riot.

“I was beaten pretty savagely with metal objects, and fists,” Fanone said.

Kyle Young of Iowa lunged for Fanone’s service weapon. Young was recently sentenced to more than seven years in a federal prison for his part in the riot.

“Someone said, ‘Kill him with his gun,’” Fanone said.

At that point, Fanone was struck numerous times with a taser, and a fourth person stripped him of his police gear — a radio, badge and ammunition.

“At one point, I yelled out that I have kids,” Fanone said.

Members of the crowd tried to encircle him to prevent the assault. Then, other officers got to the unconscious Fanone and pulled him inside the tunnel.

Fanone and 11 others were awarded The Presidential Citizens Medal on Jan. 5 by President Biden. It is the nation’s second-highest civilian award — beneath only the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The medal recognizes someone who has performed exemplary deeds or services for his or her country or fellow citizens.

Fanone’s life changed forever.

He was taken to a local hospital. The nurse said he had a heart attack from being beaten and electrocuted with the taser. He also suffered traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.

And Fanone said other police officers suffered even worse injuries.

He said the fighting caused one officer to lose an eye, and another a finger. In total, 140 officers were injured that day; 40 of those were seriously injured, some with career-ending injuries.

“I’ve never seen anything like that,” Fanone said. “I’ve never seen a situation in which law enforcement would lose. I didn’t think we had any chance of winning that day.”

Fanone returned to full duty in October 2021. But he resigned Dec. 31, 2021. He did not seek any kind of disability benefits and was not awarded a pension.

“I realized after I came back from full duty that my career was never going to be anything like it was previously,” Fanone said. “At first I thought I might be able to find a place I could be productive but have a little bit of dignity.”

But it became apparent early on that administration would “stick me in a hole and hide me.”

“It had to do with the fact that other officers were angry that I was speaking out,” Fanone said. “People were angry about the attention I was getting and some of the things I had to say.”

Fanone became outspoken about the experience for different reasons.

Most importantly, he serves as an advocate for police officers who fought alongside him.

“And to contradict the narrative that law enforcement used a disproportionate amount of force against white Trump followers than they would have against Black people,” Fanone said. “That was wrong. Those officers were fighting for their lives.”

He also contests claims that those who breached the Capitol on Jan. 6 were peaceful protesters and that the attack was not significant.

“My message is not political. It’s simply giving a true and accurate accounting of what I experienced Jan. 6,” Fanone said. “The fact is that supporters of the former president who were enraged about what they think was a stolen election, were incited by the former president and his administration and came to the Capitol and attacked police officers for hours.”

The more outspoken Fanone becomes, the more death threats he has received.

“The harder it was to find gainful employment,” Fanone said. “People find me polarizing, controversial.”

What Fanone wants is for people to be held criminally accountable.

“No one is above the law,” he said. “In this situation, this incredibly horrific, embarrassing moment in history, no one should be above the law.”

And that includes former President Donald Trump.

“For some reasons I’ll never understand, Donald Trump has gotten working-class Americans that would agree no one is above the law to feel that Donald Trump is above the law, and I just don’t get it,” Fanone said. “Of all the people in America that you could look to and say ‘he’s a true patriot.’ How … could you look at that guy and say he’s a patriot?”

Fannone testified before the House Jan. 6 investigation committee and also attended their other hearings.

One of the Capitol rioters, Stephen Ayers of Champion, Ohio, who was not accused of any violence or destruction on Jan. 6, testified July 12 before the committee that he regretted being duped by the former president’s lies of election fraud. After the hearing, Ayers apologized to officers who protected the building. Fanone told The Associated Press at the time that the apology was not necessary because “it doesn’t do s- — for me.”

Fanone recently finished a book tour and said the book seemed to be well-received. He also started as a law enforcement analyst on CNN.

He belongs to a group, Courage for America, composed of veterans and former law enforcement calling for accountability in politics. They have 12 council members and about a thousand supporters.

“Calling out individuals whose political rhetoric incites violence,” Fanone said. “It’s a bipartisan effort.”

Fanone said his actions are not political and that he will never run seek elected office.

Even though Fanone never lived in the Shenango Valley, he has memories — like seeing the Avenue of 444 Flags — of the area from childhood trips.

His grandfather, Tony Fanone, worked at Sharon Steel for 44 years and his family also owned the Suburban Restaurant in Hermitage for several years. Tony Fanone was renowned for the elaborate Christmas displays outside his home on Sunset Boulevard in Hermitage.

Michael Fanone lives in Washington and has four daughters, ages 7, 9, 11 and 20.

With his career destroyed by the aftermath of Jan. 6, Fanone is focusing on what he’s gained.

“If there’s a silver lining in this for me — I spent 20 years as a cop, and being a police officer ain’t easy,” he said. “I did not get to spend the time I would’ve liked to with my kids. Now I’ve got all the time in the world to spend with them, and it’s been amazing.”

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